NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Corndogs, bakeoffs, prize-winning pigs, carnival rides by day, Up With People by night - the strange and often deep-fried world of the state fair. As the summer winds down, families all over the country converge on the state fair to eat funnel cakes, ride the Ferris wheel and gasp at super-sized produce. But as audiences for these traditional entertainments dwindle, promoters also offer car shows, rock concerts and bungee jumping.

On this last holiday of the summer, we'll talk with entrepreneurs and exhibitors and with you to ask what's right and what's wrong with the state fair.

Later in the hour, we'll speak with Michael Beaumier, who used his experience as the personal ads editor of the Chicago Weekly as the basis of a new book, and we have an e-mail challenge for you. Here's your chance to have a personal ad edited by a skilled professional. Twenty-five words or less, please send us your personal. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Again, 25 words or less, put Personal in the subject line. Your personal ad in 25 words or less, talk@npr.org.

But we begin with what's great about the state fair and why are fewer people going? What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten at the state fair? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, and our e-mail address, again, talk@npr.org.

We begin with Abel Gonzales, a contestant in the Texas State Fair's Big Tex Choice Awards food contest. His entry is deep-fried Coca-Cola, and he joins us now from his home in Dallas, Texas. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ABEL GONZALES (Big Tex Choice Awards): Hi, thank you.

CONAN: And I understand the contest was held earlier today. How'd you do?

Mr. GONZALES: I did pretty well. We got Most Creative.

CONAN: Most Creative.

Mr. GONZALES: Yes.

CONAN: Is that sort of like, you know, Miss Congeniality?

Mr. GONZALES: No, no, no, no, no. It has a little bit more meaning than that. It was - we're very proud of our prize.

CONAN: All right, how is fried Coca-Cola even possible?

Mr. GONZALES: Well, you have to work with it. We worked on it for - we worked on the recipe for over a year. And what you need to do is you can't just throw Coca-Cola in a fryer. You need to add stuff around it, so we added flour and some other ingredients and made it into a dough and put it in the fryer. And then we serve it up in a Coke cup with a Coke syrup, a special chocolate-strawberry-Coke syrup and put whip cream on top and cinnamon sugar.

CONAN: And there you go, Most Creative.

Mr. GONZALES: Yeah.

CONAN: What was your competition like?

Mr. GONZALES: It was pretty tough this year. It was pretty tough. This is the second year of the competition at the state fair for Best Fair Food, and this year they really came gunning for the prize. The one - the person who won the Best Taste, actually they made a fried praline, which was excellent.

CONAN: You tried the fried praline?

Mr. GONZALES: I've tried everything actually. I'm pretty fried out at the moment.

CONAN: What is a fried praline like?

Mr. GONZALES: A fried praline's great. It's kind of crispy on the outside and it's kind of warm and gooey on the inside, and it has pecans and just everything you would want in a praline except melted down.

CONAN: And it was offered by the American Dentistry Association?

Mr. GONZALES: I believe that's - they were part of there. I saw a couple of coats. I wasn't quite sure.

CONAN: Now last year, as I understand, you won the whole shebang.

Mr. GONZALES: I did. I won for the fried peanut butter, jelly and banana sandwich.

CONAN: Fried again. Is there something special about fried food in the state fair?

Mr. GONZALES: Yes, I think it's absolutely there's something special about the fried foods. I think people go out there - it's become almost like a danger food, like, okay, let's see what kind of whacky fried stuff is out there and let's try it.

CONAN: And so this is how you get, well, fried Twinkies and fried Oreos and that sort of thing.

Mr. GONZALES: Absolutely. I think they got the ball rolling and we're just trying to take it to the next level.

CONAN: How did you get interested in this?

Mr. GONZALES: In the fried food or in the fair altogether?

CONAN: Well, as you point out, they seem to go together.

Mr. GONZALES: Well, the fair, we've always been fair-goers. I mean, we - since I was a child, we've always - the fair is like a huge deal. You know, every year we would even get like special outfits. Like people go for Easter and go get a special outfit for church, we'd get a special outfit to go to the fair. And really I was very excited to be part of the state fair, and I just couldn't believe that I had actually gotten into being a vendor at the state fair. I was very excited and I've been very excited. This is my fifth year out.

CONAN: And what do you do the rest of the year, other than look at recipes for French fried Coca-Cola?

Mr. GONZALES: Believe it or not, I have a very, very boring job. I am a computer analyst. I'm in a little cube all day, so I have nothing to do but let my imagination take the best of me sometimes.

CONAN: Well, at the risk of seeming ridiculous, what is the silliest thing you've ever eaten on a stick?

Mr. GONZALES: Oh, the silliest thing - well, you know, I might have it today. I had a fried macaroni and cheese, and they put it on stick.

CONAN: You had that and the fried praline?

Mr. GONZALES: Oh, fried praline and a fried hotdog, and, oh my God, it was just, it was fry kingdom over there today.

CONAN: Heart-stoppingly good stuff, I guess.

Mr. GONZALES: Absolutely. It was all very good. It was all very, very good. They really go out for it.

CONAN: Abel Gonzales, congratulations on winning Most Creative.

Mr. GONZALES: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Abel Gonzales was a contestant in the Texas State Fair's Big Tex Choice Awards food contest, and he joined us from his home in Dallas, Texas. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Kyle is on the line with us from Redding, California.

KYLE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

KYLE: In 1992 I was the California State Fair ambassador, and so I was representing youth programs throughout the California fairs. I went to 29 fairs that summer including the state fair and got to do a lot of things. Judged a lama competition. Judged a lot of the pageants that they have at the local county fairs. Ate a lot of fair food.

CONAN: And were any of them French-fried Coca-Cola? I just wanted to check on whether Abel's concoction is new or not.

KYLE: I'd never had that.

CONAN: Aha. Did you have a good time?

KYLE: I had a great time. I mean it was really - it was kind of amazing to see the fairs in all the different communities and the way the different communities were reflected, you know. In some of the more urban areas, you know, you had a lot of stands that reflected the ethnic foods. Filipino food was big at the Santa Clara County Fair.

And the various, you know, the pageants were really reflective of what went on in the various communities. I remember one that I judged, a girl got up and give a speech about her cow that she had raised for the fair, and she ended up winning the pageant. That was her talent.

CONAN: That was her talent.

KYLE: That was her talent.

CONAN: World peace usually wins.

KYLE: Right.

CONAN: I wonder have you done any work since then that's been as interesting?

KYLE: Well, you know, that was pretty fascinating, and it certainly - my job now has nothing to do with fairs - but it certainly taught me to relate to and talk to people from all different walks of life, and it was fun to see all that the various communities in California had to offer. I mean it's a big state and so, you know, the technology was firmly in place at the Santa Clara County Fair, and the agricultural areas were emphasized at many of the more rural fairs. And it was a great experience.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, Kyle. Are you going back to the fair this year?

KYLE: I will, yes.

CONAN: All right, good for you.

KYLE: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Kyle calling us from Redding, California.

State fairs have showcased livestock from the beginning, be it dog shows or pig races. These days state fairs boast a very different kind of exhibit - cow birthing tents. State fairs from Florida to New York now have cow birthing tents, and they're a big hit. Joining us is Rich Knebal who's in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on his way home from the state fair there. Nice to have you on the program, Rich.

Mr. RICH KNEBAL (Pennsylvania State Fair vendor): Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: What's the Miracle of Life tent?

Mr. KNEBAL: Well, we get an awful of interest in people just wanting to - after they find out there is going to be a birth, a cow, we have two, three cows ready to give birth - they'll just flock in that tent. And we got a birthing pen by itself where we put the cow up front. And we kind of narrate exactly what's going on and we narrate the stages of labor. And if we do have to do - and sometimes we do have to go in and straighten the calf out or give her some help. We tell them what we're doing. It's very appreciative. I just think it's, you know, life starting and boy, it really builds interest in people.

CONAN: Is there a veterinarian there in case anything goes wrong?

Mr. KNEBAL: We've usually got one full time, and then we've, me and my son both, we've done this all of our lives, so there isn't too much we haven't been into.

CONAN: I wonder do the cows mind at all?

Mr. KNEBAL: No. When it comes time, if they're going to give birth, they'll give birth in a birthing pen or way out back in a corner in the pasture. It doesn't make any difference.

CONAN: And I understand this is a big hit. People stand there and watch this for hours sometimes.

Mr. KNEBAL: Oh, yes, yes. Then it's, well, even the birth, and then after birth, we put the cow back into a holding pen alongside where the people will walk along and they see the baby calf with the cow for two or three days. The little guys and little cows are jumping and playing around, and the people just stand and watch that just about as much as they will a birth.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. KNEBAL: Yup.

CONAN: How did you get into cow-birthing business?

Mr. KNEBAL: Oh, probably 10, 12 years ago, we was down in Tampa, and I think that's the first one we kind of encountered. And we really, I was doing another ag display there, and the guy that was running the birthing center, well, he had arthritis in his hands. And when he would run into a problem delivering a calf, turning a calf, getting it in the right position, he'd come get us to help. And that kind of got us, I mean, that really opened our eyes to the interest that was there.

So from that point on, then we'd go ahead and we've done our own and I guess we're doing six a year right now.

CONAN: And you must have to work it out in terms of the timing to make sure you always have a cow ready to go.

Mr. KNEBAL: Right. We work ahead even with the fair, with local dairymen, that they know the time of the fair. We kind of get these cows bred so they're definitely during, you know, going to give birth during the fair week or the length of the fair. Most of them are 10 days, the state fairs. And it works out pretty good. If you don't - usually you work with a large dairy or you're going to have to work with two or three smaller ones. But the dairy cows, we like working a lot better than we do beef cattle.

CONAN: Now, how was the Pennsylvania State Fair?

Mr. KNEBAL: Well, we're at Allentown right now.

CONAN: So you haven't gotten there yet.

MR. KNEBAL: We got done with Rhinebeck. We done a birthing center at Rhinebeck, Duchess County, and that worked good. And we've got a dairy educational display here at Allentown on our way back home to Indiana now.

CONAN: I see. Well, have a good trip, and be careful. And are - so it sounds like you're not planning to birth any cows there in Allentown.

Mr. KNEBAL: No, we're not. Now Richmond, Virginia, is our next birthing center.

CONAN: All right, well, I guess people can look forward to that. You go to a lot of state fairs. Do you think people should go? Are they fun?

Mr. KNEBAL: Oh, yeah. I think a state fair - there's a little bit for everybody, something there for everybody to see and enjoy, education, entertainment. I think that's what makes a fair. If you just forget the education point and just go with the entertainment, you lose a lot of the families that will not come.

CONAN: All right, thanks for being with us, and good luck there in Allentown.

Mr. KNEBAL: Okey-doke, thank you.

CONAN: Rich Knebal runs the Miracle of Life tent at different fairs across the country at different times of the year, as you just heard. He spoke with us from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he's, well, not quite a birthing but a more educational program this time around.

We're talking about state fairs. What's great about them? What isn't so great? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan, back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

On this Labor Day holiday, we're talking about state fairs: why you go, why attendance is dropping around the country. Of course you're invited to join us. What are your state fair memories? What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten on a stick? Join us, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And let's go straight to Ben. Ben's calling us from Louisville in Kentucky.

BEN (Caller): Hi, thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

BEN: The Kentucky State Fair happened just recently here, and there was someone peddling pork butt on a stick. I didn't see it with my own eyes. I don't know what it is. I'm not sure I want to know, so I can't vouch for it. But it's definitely one of the weirdest things I've ever heard of in my life.

CONAN: Fried Oreos are perfectly fine though.

BEN: You know, pork butt on a stick I think I would take after the fried Oreos.

CONAN: Okay. Ben, thanks very much.

BEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Did you have a good time, by the way?

BEN: Oh, I didn't even go. I just read about it in a local magazine.

CONAN: In the local paper. Well, that's apparently the problem. A lot of people just read about it in the local paper.

BEN: Well, yeah, and maybe they, you know, aren't looking to go out and eat pork butt on a stick, you know.

CONAN: That's possible. That's also another reason. Good luck, Ben. Bye-bye.

BEN: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's try Greg. Greg's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

GREG (Caller): Yes, I am.

CONAN: And what's the strangest thing you ever ate at the state fair?

GREG: I had, when I was living up in Alaska, I had deep-fried muktuk on a stick.

CONAN: And what is muktuk, though I'm afraid to ask?

GREG: Muktuk is the native Alaskan term for rancid whale blubber.

CONAN: And I'm sure a delicacy it is, though perhaps an acquired taste. Did you find it that way?

GREG: It is the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten.

CONAN: Could we take it that you have some experience at eating disgusting things?

GREG: Well, growing up in Alaska, the native Alaskans eat everything. There's nothing that's wasted on the animal and so, yeah, caribou nose, moose lips, bear intestine. Yeah, I've tried it all, and rancid whale blubber is number one bad.

CONAN: Well, Greg, we'll take your word for it. Thanks very much.

GREG: Yep, bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. State fairs attract visitors with sometimes bizarre sights, sometimes good food and sometimes not so good, and the promise of fun. One such observer is Arthur Grace. He was attracted to state fairs nearly 30 years ago, and has been photographing them ever since. He recently compiled his photos into a book called State Fair. You can see some of them on our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

And Arthur Grace joins us now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ARTHUR GRACE (Photographer): Thanks, good to be here.

CONAN: Let's start from the beginning. I know you did some historical research. State fairs began, what, at the - 200 years ago?

Mr. GRACE: Well, according to The New York Times. A few weeks ago, they actually found the date. It was 1807. A man in Pittsfield, Mass., exhibited some sheep and that supposedly is the origin of state fairs. But basically in the 1850s they really came into their own. They were agricultural shows. Farmers would bring their prize-winning livestock or they would show their new machinery, farm machinery.

And as they attended these fairs and you had a large group, then people came to sell them food.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. GRACE: And then when people came to sell them food, people came to then entertain them. And when you had all these people in one place, then you had the - well, you could call them hucksters or entrepreneurs, small businessmen, they arrived with their gizmos and gadgets and snake oil, basically.

And it took off from there and evolved into these super, mega extravaganzas that we have now that are on 250, 300 acres and attract, like in Texas and Minnesota, close to two million people each.

CONAN: But of those core functions - the agricultural, the stockyards - that's all still there?

Mr. GRACE: Oh, absolutely. All the fairs have, you know, dairy barns and sheep barns and goat barns, equestrian centers. And really the heart of the fair is the animal husbandry competition where they show pigmy goats and beef cattle and, you know, all sorts of livestock.

CONAN: What compelled you to start photographing them?

Mr. GRACE: Well, it was purely by accident. In 1977, I was in Minneapolis on assignment and I had a down day. And I picked up the newspaper, and there was an ad for the state fair, the Minnesota State Fair. So my photo agency, Sigma, was based in France, and the French love when Americans do quirky and crazy things.

They can't get enough of it. So I grabbed my cameras, went over to the fair. And as soon as I came in through gate, I was just hit by this wall of sounds and smells and excitement, and you had marching bands and buglers and arm wrestling going on and people walking their animals and farmers poring over equipment and farm machinery. It was just a mother lode of pure Americana.

And, you know, so a visual person like me, it was plenty quirky, believe me. And I - and not to take cheap shots or anything, but I know what the French like and also, you know, it's interesting to Americas. We are a, you know, a rather weird and strange nation in our own way. So I was walking down a pathway and all of a sudden I heard through a loudspeaker, there was a small building and somebody come on in and look at the butter sculpture competition. Come on in for the butter sculpture. And I thought to myself, what could they possibly be sculpting out of a stick of butter, I mean, a pen and pencil set?

I mean, what could you possibly do? So I walked in and there was a crowd in there. I slowly pushed my way - excuse me, moved my way to the front of the group or the crowd. And there was a glass-enclosed refrigerated area where this man was there sitting away sculpting on an 800-pound block of butter, a bust of a beautiful woman. That was it. I was hooked after that. It was about the weirdest thing I'd ever seen. So that started it.

CONAN: And I wonder, how long ago was that?

Mr. GRACE: 1977.

CONAN: And so this has been, what, 30 years you've been doing this.

Mr. GRACE: Well, no, it was off and on. I covered, I worked out of Washington for Time and Newsweek as a photojournalist and I would go back to fairs. It stuck with me in my mind that this is just great Americana and a great book someday.

But I would go back with presidential candidates. They would come, they would, we would parachute into these state fairs. Ohio, you know, Iowa, wherever. And you would be there for an hour or two hours and we'd be the spectacle in the show. But I would drift off and once again get a fix of all this wonderful, you know, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn and the animals and everything else and know I had to go back.

In 1992, I had finished the book, and I went to the Virginia State Fair and took some more pictures and then dropped it again, you know, got involved with commercial photography. And in 2003, I had the time and resources to finally go back, revisit it, do a documentary project. So I went to the California State Farm and from there to Texas and Florida and North Carolina, etcetera. So I really finished it in 2003 and 2004 and the book's come out now.

CONAN: Now. Yeah, I wonder when you looked at it with the eye of, well, you're on assignment from your French agency, you know, those wacky Americans quotient you had to fill - believe me, I had to fill those wacky Brit quotients when I was the American correspondent in London. At least we're not them. I wonder, when you went out this last time around, did you look at with a slightly different eye?

Mr. GRACE: Not really. I was thrilled that it hadn't changed all that much. But quirky never goes away in this country. It grows exponentially. You know, I must say I was completely taken aback at the Minnesota State Fair when they had in the veterinary building what was referred to as the live spaying show that happened at 11-1-3, where they had, behind a glass enclosure, they had the actual operation going on with closed circuit televisions and a vet that was doing the play by play, and each time there was a guest vet performing the operation. This I'd never seen before. You know, grocery bagging contests, this was news to me.

CONAN: Grocery bagging?

Mr. GRACE: Grocery bagging. Ohio State Fair had it on its schedule grocery bagging contests. I go inside this tent, and there were these checkout stands set up and the contestants wearing their aprons, their official, I mean, they work in grocery stores. And all these groceries are piled up on each counter, and they are timed how quickly they can put the groceries in the bag, and they're penalized for breakage.

And this is a very serious deal. There was a huge crowd. The whistle blows, they do the deal, and they give out these bronze trophies of a bag, a grocery bag. And then you get to go to the bag off, I guess it is, the national bag off in Las Vegas where you win a $100,000 first prize.

CONAN: Well, you know, the country never ceases to amaze me.

Anyway, let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Kate. Kate's calling us from Cloverdale. Is that right, in Michigan?

KATE (Caller): Yes, that's right.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

KATE: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KATE: I just got back from the Nebraska State Fair.

CONAN: Aha.

KATE: I grew up in Nebraska, and I go back every year to take my dad's sister, my aunt, to the state fair.

CONAN: And how's it doing?

KATE: It's doing great. It was a good year this year. The attendance was actually up, according to the newspaper the next day.

CONAN: And what did you have to eat at the state fair?

KATE: Well, I tried my first fried Oreo. And got my picture taken next to the fried Twinkie sign so I could prove it to all the rest of my relatives.

CONAN: And how was the fried Oreo? I've read about them. I've seen them. I've never had the nerve.

KATE: Well, you know, I took a bite just so I could say that I'd tried one and then I took another bite. And before you knew it, it was gone, so.

CONAN: The whole package. No, no, no, just the one, I'm sure.

KATE: No, no, no, just one, just one. But it was pretty good actually. Better than I thought it would be.

CONAN: And do you go to just the Nebraska fair, not the Michigan fair?

KATE: You know, I've never been to the Michigan fair. I've lived here over 20 years and I've never been to the Michigan one. But I've been to the Nebraska one any number of years.

CONAN: And it gets - from your description - get better and better.

KATE: Well, the last couple of years have been really good. This year was the first year it wasn't beastly hot. So that was really nice. It was nice and cool.

CONAN: Kate thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

KATE: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I wonder have you seen, Arthur Grace, any indication of dwindling attendance?

Mr. GRACE: It would be very difficult to tell. I mean, when I was at all the fairs they're just jam packed, especially on the weekends. The Minnesota State Fair especially is just a sea of humanity on the weekends, in fact, during the week. I've read about it recently - these articles in USA Today and the New York Times - but anecdotally I didn't see anything like that.

CONAN: And it certainly doesn't seem to drive the politicians away.

Mr. GRACE: Oh no. They're going to be there, as I say, with bells on. They are, you know, a built in crowd. They set it up a head of time, their advance people and they come in and, you know, make their pitch and eat a few corn dogs and leave.

CONAN: Let's get Steve and the line and Steve is calling us from Syracuse, New York, this side of the New York State Fair.

STEVE (CALLER): Yes, yes. The rainy one. It's been rainy all this - pretty much all the days here. Yeah. I haven't been to it this year, but my comment was basically on the animal husbandry section of it. Of course, that's one of the, as you'd mentioned, the start of it. But my take on it is a little bit different as a vegetarian.

Because I see that, for instance, the birthing of the calf that's going to wind up usually if it's a male being slaughtered within a few days or being raised as a bull to be for part of creating more. It's just kind of ironic to have this pageantry of the animals that will just wind up being food.

CONAN: So you think it's cruel?

STEVE: Well, I can't say it's cruel because I believe that's natural. I don't have a problem with people eating meat. I just think it's kind of ironic. One of the detractors, though, for me is I don't really like the idea that people go they participate and then say oh, what beautiful animals and then turn around and eat them.

CONAN: Well, all right. Steve thanks very much call. We appreciate it.

STEVE: No problem. Thanks.

CONAN: We're talking today about state fairs. If you'd like to join the conversation our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Don't forget our e-mail challenge for our next segment. We're going to be talking with Michael Beaumier, who spent eight years editing personal ads. So if you've got one you'd like to see professionally edited - 25 words or less -send it to us by e-mail, talk@npr.org. And that'll be coming up later. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Margie. Margie's calling us from Louisville in Kentucky.

MARGIE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MARGIE: My dad was a professor - a chicken professor - which of course I got a lot of grief over as a child. But we would drive the 80 miles from Lexington, Kentucky, to Louisville and we would leave the house at 4:00 in the morning and we would get to that animal husbandry barn, as your first caller said, and we would get to the chickens and my dad would be in charge of judging the chickens and the roosters and the rooster crowing contest and he'd judge the eggs. And so I would be there from 5:00 in the morning until he finished like at 10:30 in the morning.

And that's when all the carnies are taking their showers. You know, coming into the building. And the midway is just completely barren of anything except just a few trash things and so it was a whole different perspective. And 40 some years ago, you know, I guess my mom and dad didn't think it was worth waiting until it all opened up, so I got to see it from the closed side.

CONAN: It sounds like it was a vivid memory.

MARGIE: Yeah. And then when I was - later on in high school, our band participated. We had a big band contest. And then we have an ugly lamp contest at the fair where people find the ugliest lamps, and that's really fun. And we have all kinds of - just it's a very good fair. We have the pig races. I don't know whether they talked about the pig races or not before. It's just Americana at its best at our state fair.

CONAN: Margie thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

MARGIE: You're welcome. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Joining us now is Sarah Pratt, who recently exhibited at the Iowa State Fair, where she sculpted a cow entirely of butter. Ms. Pratt joins us now by phone from her home in Norwalk, Iowa. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Ms. SARAH PRATT (Iowa State Fair participant): You're welcome.

CONAN: I understand the fair ended a couple of weeks ago, where's the cow now?

Ms. PRATT: It did. We tore it down and we recycled the butter. So next year when I start making my butter cow, I will get that butter back out of storage and go at it again.

CONAN: Do you make a cow every year?

Ms. PRATT: Every year for the last, oh, at least 100 years, they can trace back this tradition at the Iowa State Fair that there has been a butter cow sculpture at the Iowa State Fair. And then also in the most recent past we've added a few other sculptures to the exhibit as well.

CONAN: The Last Supper.

Ms. PRATT: Yes. That was several years ago.

CONAN: This all has to be done in a cold room right?

Ms. PRATT: That's right. It's 40 degrees, so it is very cold. There's a little bit of a wind chill because the fans stay on all the time.

CONAN: Michelangelo had his problems in life, but he never had to sculpt in 40 degree weather, did he.

Ms. PRATT: No, that's right.

CONAN: How did you learn to sculpt butter?

Ms. PRATT: Well, Norma Duffy Lyon has been at the fair for 65 years and I was her apprentice for the last 13 of those.

CONAN: So you've done the cow every year?

Ms. PRATT: I've worked on the cow and I've worked on other sculptures with her as well.

CONAN: And I wonder, during the off season, winter time, do you make snowmen?

Ms. PRATT: With my children I do. I have twin daughters who are going to be three this fall. So we get out there in the snow when we can.

CONAN: And you must, if you ever go to the beach, the sand castles must be amazing.

Ms. PRATT: That's right.

CONAN: So what is the challenge of sculpting butter?

Ms. PRATT: Well, of course, the temperature is one of the big challenges. But the medium of butter is very easy to work with. It's very pliable and it's really easy to change the consistency of. So in comparison to oil-based clays or marble or any of the other typical sculpting mediums, it's really easy.

CONAN: So if you make a mistake it's very forgiving.

Ms. PRATT: Yes, it is.

CONAN: You don't have to start with a whole new piece of butter.

Ms. PRATT: That's right.

CONAN: Are you planning to do it again next year?

Ms. PRATT: Yes, I am. I had a lot of fun. I was a little nervous being the one in charge this year, but it was a lot of fun and I'll be back again.

CONAN: And what do you look forward to the most?

Ms. PRATT: Well, I really love the fair. I've always gone. I always remember being at the fair as a child and, of course, being an exhibitor at the fair is really exciting. And I consider myself first generation off the farm. My parents moved us off the farm when we were little. And so I really love taking my daughters there and they're kind of proud. Even at their young age they say mommy's butter cow, we want to see mommy's butter cow. So I really enjoy having them be a part of the fair too.

CONAN: Sarah Pratt, congratulations and thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Ms. PRATT: Thank you. No problem.

CONAN: Sarah Pratt is the once and future butter cow sculptor at the Iowa State Fair. She joined us by phone from her home in Norwalk, Iowa.

We're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to be talking more about the magic of state fairs. And we'll also be talking with a man who edited personal ads for eight years. Twenty-five words or less, e-mail us, talk@npr.org. Your personal ad edited by an expert. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: In a few minutes the very public private longings of the personal pages. But right now we're wrapping up our conversations about state fairs. Our guest is Arthur Grace, a photographer and author of the book State Fair. And he's with us from the studios of NPR West out in Los Angeles.

Here's a couple of e-mails that we've received. This from Doug LeMoine(ph) in San Francisco.

“In the dairy tent at the Minnesota State Fair, the sculptor carves the likenesses of a dozen or so local dairy queens”. We just heard about butter cows and 75 pound blocks of butter. “The sculpting takes place in a refrigerated glass box that revolves in the middle of the tent and both the sculptor and sculptee wear heavy parkas throughout the process. After this you can walk outside and buy a bottomless cup of milk for a dollar. How great is that?”

And from Abrina(ph) in San Jose, California. “I grew up in Turlock, California, and went to the Stanislaus County Fair almost every year. Back then it was good old-fashioned fun, a good opportunity for kids to milk a cow, feed a goat, or hold a baby pig. Now the fair is more high tech. they've even go so far as to broadcast karaoke - I call it fairoke - on public access TV. I could do without that stuff. But the animal attractions are still fun for kids and grown ups alike.”

And Arthur Grace, when you go to these fairs you see kids that you worry didn't exist anymore in America.

Mr. GRACE: Well, for a lot of children, apparently they're more used to seeing an ocelot - they're familiar with that because their neighbor has one - than they are with seeing a goat or a pig. And the children growing up today don't see farm animals. So it's a big hit at the fairs. These petting areas where they have common farm animals like goats, sheep, lamb, cows and basic domestic farm animals. Because kids today apparently do not have contact with chickens and turkeys and these kinds of domestic poultry animals.

CONAN: So the pig is an exotic and the ocelot, well just another ocelot.

Mr. GRACE: Yeah, well, your neighbor has one of those, but you've never seen a pig. You're right. That's what's going on. So it's very, very popular. You'll see lines at all these petting areas at all the fairs.

CONAN: Let's talk with Dean. Dean's calling us from Palmer in Alaska.

DEAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Dean.

DEAN: I'm sitting in the middle of the fair on my cell phone watching the backhoe rodeo, getting ready to go down to watch them carve up a giant 608 pound pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern.

CONAN: What's the backhoe rodeo like?

DEAN: There's two front end loaders facing each other and they each have their own timed obstacle course, and we've got every operator from Alaska here trying to show each other up. They have to pick up eggs and tennis balls off of cones and pick up pails of water and put it into other things. And it's kind of the competition that everybody comes here and kind of struts their stuff and sizes everybody else up. And it's a big part of Alaska. There's a lot of construction going on up here, so. A lot of operators come out here to show their stuff.

CONAN: I bet the fun part is when somebody really messes up.

DEAN: Well, yeah, and they don't realize it's one thing to have skills, but when you get in a contest there's a little bit extra pressure. And so it's the ones that can handle that that actually do well.

CONAN: And you're going next to the pumpkin carving contest?

DEAN: Well, it's not a contest. But we had a 1000 plus pound pumpkin this year, and one of the fellows that came in second place decided that he'd get ready for Halloween early and he's got a 608 pound pumpkin that's he's going to carve into a jack-o-lantern today, so.

CONAN: I'm not sure you can hear me. We're having a little trouble with the line, but we had a caller earlier who said he'd been to the Alaska State Fair and they had muktuk on a stick there. Is that accurate?

DEAN: I haven't had that myself, but we do have salmon quesadilla and halibut tacos, and I think - I've been to a lot of fairs, and our fairs are really unique in the sense that we have really good foods that are based on things that are grown or harvested in Alaska -

CONAN: All right, well Dean, thanks very much, and have a good time at the pumpkin carving.

DEAN: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: And Arthur Grace, I think the salmon quesadilla sounds a lot more attractive than the muktuk.

Mr. GRACE: Yeah, that sounds like something you'd have in midtown Manhattan.

CONAN: Yeah. Nevertheless, I'm sure it's better in Alaska.

Mr. GRACE: Or on K Street in Washington.

CONAN: Yeah, that's true. It's better, though, in Alaska. Let's see if we can talk with Suzie, and Suzie's calling us from just outside New Orleans.

DENISE (Caller): Yeah, hi. Actually, my name's Denise, and it's a shame that the NPR TALK OF THE NATION is not allowing an open dialogue on state fairs, because this is only really a promotion. I tried to get on the call earlier. They cut me off because I wanted to talk about why state fairs are losing their attendance, and when I called back saying I eat alligator on a stick, they were only then willing to put me on the air.

CONAN: So only when you lied to us were we willing to put you on the radio.

DENISE: That's correct. I'm really sad about that, Neal.

CONAN: Me, too. Bye-bye.

And Arthur Grace, as we listen to state fairs - I apologize for that - but the difference, as we talk about, there is evidence of declining attendance, but nevertheless these things seem like a permanent part of the American landscape. You can't imagine them becoming obsolete.

Mr. GRACE: Well, one of your callers said so earlier. They're traditional. It's tradition. If you went, if your grandparents took you, your parents - if your grandparents took your parents, then your parents take you and you're going to take your children. And it seems to be a generational thing. It's almost like an annual pilgrimage. They go to get the corny dog, ride on the midway rides, win a prize, see the animals, and it's just something, a yearly thing you do, almost like Halloween, you go out with your kids on Halloween.

When it comes time for August and September, you go to the state fair with your family. And one thing I wanted to mention, one of the great things about state fairs is how democratic they are - small d. They're very inexpensive. There isn't a lot of entertainment, family entertainment, left in this country where you can get in for $9 for an adult or $5 for a child. In fact, at the Minneapolis state fair, kids under 48 inches get in for free.

You know, the Texas state fair is $9. So it really is inexpensive, and they always have senior citizens' day. They have a day if you bring canned goods for the poor you can get in for free. They have Boy Scout Day. So you get in very inexpensively and you get all this free entertainment, loads of fun, and they're just a peaceful environment. I can't describe it. I never saw an altercation in all the fairs I was at. Of course, I wasn't there at 10 p.m., you know, on the midway, but I never saw a harsh word or an altercation of any kind, and it's just great family entertainment where you can go, and everybody is there to have a good time - eat until they drop and have fun.

CONAN: Arthur Grace, thanks very much, and good luck with the book.

Mr. GRACE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Arthur Grace is a professional photographer. His collection of photographs from the fairs is available in a book called, as you might suspect, State Fair. And if you'd like to sample some of Arthur Grace's photographs, you can go to the TALK OF THE NATION page at NPR.org.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.